Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Screener Season: Part One

As Scott and I cross-talked about last week, the end-of-the-year listmaking season is upon us, and we're playing a desperate game of catch-up. If I had to make my Top 10 Movies Of 2006 list right now, it would probably look like this:

1. The Prestige
2. A Prairie Home Companion
3. Pan's Labyrinth
4. The Departed
5. Inside Man
6. C.S.A.: Confederate States Of America
7. The Death Of Mr. Lazarescu
8. Pusher III
9. Iraq In Fragments
10. The Devil And Daniel Johnston

And as of last week, my honorable mention list would probably include The Bridesmaid, Cocaine Cowboys, Dead Man's Shoes, The Descent, Fateless, Gabrielle, Jonestown, L'Enfant, Marie Antoinette, Monster House, Pirates Of The Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest, Shortbus, Venus and Who Gets To Call It Art?

But I don't have to make a list right now. I've got roughly three weeks to attend as many critics' screenings and watch as many "Academy screeners" as I can, while catching up with movies I missed early in the year via the ol' "previously viewed DVD" bin at my local big box, and via the largesse of friends kind enough to lend me screeners of art house movies from this past spring.

It's like a miniature, self-curated film festival, so I'm going to cover it like a film festival, keeping a running journal of what I see, and sharing it every few days. It starts here:

Friday, November 17th
V For Vendetta (seen on commercial DVD): This was released in theaters right as I was in the midst of teaching a class on comics at my local university, and the students who saw it opening weekend were surprised that I didn't, since I'd touted Alan Moore repeatedly. Maybe I was just showing loyalty to Moore by skipping a movie adaptation he didn't approve. And now that I've finally caught up with it, maybe I can attribute my general indifference to Moore as well. I can see why he didn't like the direction this whole project was headed. It's not that V For Vendetta is fundamentally untrue to the graphic novel–though some changes, like making Evie a TV producer's assistant instead of a prostitute, feel pretty arbitrary–but that it's fairly unnecessary. Moore's dystopian scenario is either over-explained or under-explained, making the movie flat for people who know the book, and maybe a little confusing for those who don't. And while the book's up-the-system radicalism and yank-out-the-rug plot twists survive here, they look a little silly (and definitely a little chatty) when enacted. I'll give the movie some benefit of the doubt, since I came to it with maybe too much foreknowledge, and those completely ignorant of V For Vendetta could get more out of it. But even in Tabula Rasa Land, Natalie Portman's sobby performance would be grating, and the movie's callous exploitation of historical slaughters–from the holocaust to 9/11–would still seem ill-considered.
Grade: C+
On the list? Uh … no.

Saturday, November 18th
Happy Feet (commercial screening): With my wife out of town for a week and me looking for something to do with my 5-year-old and my 2-year-old all day, I had the bright idea to take them to their first-ever movie in a real movie theater. (They've watched plenty of DVDs, and we ducked into the movie theater on the Disney Cruise ship we were on this past summer and watched a half-hour of Cars, but this would be their first movie-movie.) As I expected, they liked the popcorn, were restless and bored during the 20 minutes of previews, and were mesmerized when the movie started, but worn out by about 40 minutes in. So that's all I saw of Happy Feet, and I'm not sure what to make of that fragment. The story seemed irredeemably cloying, but I found the pop music collages pretty remarkable, and the pace zippy almost to the point of abstraction. A weird movie, deserving further study.
Grade: Incomplete
On the list? Unlikely, but I'd like to see the rest of it to be sure.

Climates (DVD-R): When Scott saw this in Toronto, he insisted that it had to be seen on a big screen, and he almost wanted to confiscate the screener DVD I snagged from a friend and snap it in two, lest I be tempted to view it at home. But I'm not a firm believer in the big screen theory, for reasons I'll save for another blog post someday, and while I'm sure that there are some movies that play better in a theater, I tend to think that if it can't work reasonably well on a TV, then it doesn't really work at all. Scott'll be happy to know that Climates works just fine on DVD. I admire Nuri Bilge Ceylan's previous film Distant, but I wasn't overwhelmed by it; and I feel the same about Climates. Much of Climates is needlessly protracted, and the characters talk to each other a lot less than they probably should (both for the good of their characters and for the good of the movie), but Ceylan's fascination with landscapes and deep fields of vision remains stunning to behold, and he's bumped the technique up a little this time by playing tricks with camera placement, often blocking the view of a person or a place for most of a scene, then suddenly revealing it when it'll have the most impact. As for the break-up-and-make-up romance that drives the plot, it's a little hackneyed, but Ceylan stages it well, particularly in a scene where the lovers try to reconcile while sitting inside a parked van that other people keep stepping in and out of. And sometimes Ceylan's decision to lay off the dialogue really pays off, like when his female lead realizes that her ex is still kind of a jerk, and the whole story plays out on her face, quickly changing from glowing to stormy. Great final shot, too.
Grade: B
On the list? Maybe an honorable mention.

Half Nelson (Academy screener): For as long as director Ryan Fleck and his editing/screenwriting partner Anna Boden keep the plot of this movie (crack-addicted junior high teacher disappoints one of star pupils) out of the way of the feeling of this movie (the struggle to cling to an identity in a system that wants to make you into a stereotype), this is one of the best movies of the year, anchored by a Ryan Gosling performance that's his most magnetic and complex since his breakthrough in The Believer. Even the necessities of the plot really don't mess Half Nelson up too much, since Fleck and Boden have such a strong sense of how people might actually behave if, say, they were caught with a crack pipe in a junior high bathroom. Even when the story is contrived, the reactions aren't. Also, the movie sets up an interesting clash of philosophies between the pragmatic drug dealer on the block and the idealistic teacher who uses his product. And again, Gosling … man. At one point he excuses his crack use to his student by warning, "One thing doesn't make a man," but with the way he sings an old Sesame Street counting song to himself on the way to work, and the way he chills out by watching Charles In Charge, it's clear that a lot of things have made him who he is: a grown man who'd wishes he could go back to being the smartest kid in school.
Grade: B+
On the list? Honorable mention, surely. And special notice for Gosling.

Sunday, November 19th
Thank You For Smoking (Academy screener): Yet another film that's just a shade away from being great, but still very good. If only director Jason Reitman could've steered clear of the jolly score–a cliché now for these kinds of mega-ironic political comedies–and if only he could've found a way to steer around the part of Christopher Buckley's plot that has lobbyist hero Aaron Eckhart breaking character and spilling his guts to a sexy reporter. Also, maybe the movie could've been rooted just a little deeper in the real world, where "superstar lobbyists" per se don't exist. (Jack Abramoff excepted.) Still, Thank You For Smoking is the closest the movies have come to replicating the buzzy, insider-y feel of a Tom Wolfe novel; and unlike V For Vendetta's James McTeigue, Reitman illustrates the theme of the book he's adapting without stating it outright and underlining it in bold. As he and Buckley follow Eckhart's "we just want you to think for yourself" logic to its inevitable conclusion, they explain how America's stubborn individualism can be a curse. We love underdogs in this country, yet because we also can't stand being pushed around, we can easily let ourselves be convinced that the people with all the money and the power are the most deserving of our sympathy.
Grade: B+
On the list? Throw it on the honorable mention pile.

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